Two dozen rare Amazon parrot chicks left orphaned and homeless by a sophisticated wildlife smuggling operation are receiving round-the-clock care by FIU conservation zoologists.
The birds were poached from their nests and smuggled while still eggs, though some had hatched by the time they were discovered in a Chinese national’s carry-on bag (a cleverly disguised incubator) by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents on March 23 at Miami International Airport. This presented a unique challenge to the federal agencies that regulate the importation of wildlife because they lack the specialized equipment and means to hatch and care for so many tiny hatchlings at the airport’s USDA quarantine facility.
Soon after discovering the eggs, they contacted Paul Reillo, FIU research professor and director of FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute, for assistance. The eggs and hatchlings were transported to the institute’s program partner, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), where they have been cared for ever since.
“It’s clear this was part of a very sophisticated trafficking operation,” said Reillo, who is also the founding director of RSCF. “It’s not easy to assemble a group of this many eggs synchronized to all hatch around the same time. The total elapsed time from the first to last hatching was just 10 days.”
The smuggler, who was traveling from Nicaragua en route to Asia with a total of 29 eggs, was arrested and recently pled guilty to wildlife trafficking charges, resulting in one of the largest parrot-smuggling busts in recent years.
In total, 26 of 29 eggs hatched, with 24 parrot chicks surviving and now nearly fully feathered. FIU researchers provided USFWS law enforcement with DNA species identification, revealing three of the parrots are red-lored Amazons and the other 21 are endangered yellow-naped Amazons.
Yellow-naped Amazons are threatened with extinction in the wild and prohibited from international trade. Their beauty, temperament and mimicking ability make them among the most trafficked Central American parrot species, with more than 90 percent of wild nests poached for the illegal pet trade.
“This batch of intercepted eggs likely represents a significant fraction of offspring from a swath of forest, seriously impacting species already in trouble,” Reillo said. “In high demand as pets with high price tags on their heads, parrots have become innocent victims of human greed. Aside from the sheer number of eggs, what makes this case unusual is that most of the intercepted eggs were viable, and the chicks survived. Smuggled animals often experience very high mortality.”
For more than 30 years, Reillo and his team have successfully bred and managed endangered parrot species to support their recovery in the wild. Incubating and caring for the smuggled hatchlings is demanding work as they require round-the-clock care.
Officials from the USDA did an emergency site visit and approved RSCF as a quarantine site to care for the birds. For the next 45 days, they remained under federally mandated quarantine, meeting biosecurity and safety standards until the birds tested negative for pathogens. Now, the parrot chicks fill their days with demanding chirps and playful movements that will soon transition to flight.
Due to political issues and because the birds are being hand-reared, they are poor candidates for repatriation or release. Reillo and the USFWS hope the birds will find new homes among South Florida zoos and wildlife centers where they can serve as conservation ambassadors, educating the public about the consequences of wildlife trafficking.
“The reality for many threatened and endangered species is they are being illegally trafficked for the pet trade, for animal products and for food,” said Mike Heithaus, executive dean of FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education. “FIU has built robust anti-trafficking programs to combat this issue and these parrots are very lucky to have Dr. Reillo and his team step up to help give them a fighting chance at survival. Now, what we really need is stop trafficking before animals are removed from the wild so we don’t lose these species forever.”
Trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products is estimated to be the fourth largest illegal trade in the world. But this destructive, devastating billion-dollar trade threatening many of the world’s most endangered species still operates as somewhat of a mystery. What avenues are smugglers using to illegally move products, animals and plants from place to place? What countries are the biggest exporters? In which countries is demand the greatest? These are some of the questions FIU conservation crime scientist Stephen Pires wanted to answer in his latest published research.
FIU Research Professor Paul Reillo and his team have provided round-the-clock care for the young Amazon parrots. Reillo is also the founding president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, the principal partner for FIU's Tropical Conservation Institute.